What Deacons Should Know, and How They Should Know It

Over the past year, since I was dismissed from the diaconate formation program in my diocese, I have been thinking about the way the program was structured.  Part of this was selfish:  there were pedagogical issues that contributed, I think, to my dismissal.  (To date I have never gotten a coherent explanation for why I was dismissed, but that is another story and not relevant to the topic at hand.)   But I am also a teacher by profession, and the questions involved in educating deacons are complex and  I find them interesting and challenging.

Indeed, were I to be put in charge of diaconate formation by some miracle, I have already begun to sketch out a series of changes I would make.  There is perhaps  a little hubris at work here—this is a common failing among academics.  I realize that there is a great deal I don’t know  about formation programs, and many ideas that I have may seem good on paper, but may then fall short because of issues I simply have not considered, either because of a lack of experience or a lack of specialized knowledge.

Therefore, I want to open some of my ideas up for discussion here.  The first idea I want to cover is the question in the title:  what should deacons know, and how should they know it?  The first half of the question is relatively straightforward:  what knowledge, information and skills should be in the “toolkit” of every new deacon?  There is plenty of room for disagreement here—see, for instance, my earlier post on one question on the entrance exam administered by my diocese.  However, there are some broad areas that I think most people will agree deacons need to have some competency: e.g., scripture, preaching, liturgy, pastoral care, Catholic ethical and social teaching.   But I would be interested in seeing where people would place their emphases and priorities, and why.  And it is worth bearing in mind that the USCCB has written extensively about diaconate formation programs.

The second half of the title is a more subtle epistemological question which I think I can illustrate by way of two examples.  When I got my Ph.D. 20 years ago, I “knew” introductory calculus very well.   Not only had I studied it, but I had chosen my research specialty in an area (harmonic analysis) that is closely related to the material covered in a standard calculus course.   However, I would now say that I know calculus much better than I did then, because I now know how to teach calculus.  I know which ideas are intuitively clear and which are not; I have a better grasp of which ideas to emphasize and which to omit the first time a student sees the material;  I understand how to draw out connections between ideas that help my students begin to see the “big picture” more clearly.  Unfortunately (particularly for the students I taught in the first few years of my career) I was not taught any of this when I “learned” calculus—I pretty much learned it by trial and error in the classroom and in discussions with other colleagues.    I would argue that this knowledge is not simply pedagogical skills separate from the content of calculus.  Rather, I think it is an integral part of the conceptual organization of calculus in my own mind.

The second example comes from the doctoral program in preaching at the Aquinas Institute.  I stumbled across this program while looking for resources on homiletics.  One feature that I found intriguing was the entrance requirements:  students were required to have a masters in divinity and at least three years of ministerial experience.  In other words, the students were required to have considerable experience in preaching, including having gone through the entire lectionary at least once.   This suggests to me that the program organizers want their students to already “know” scripture in a particular way:  not just from a close reading of the texts (as would be gotten in any M. Div. program) but also from having to respond to these texts in the context of preaching on them.

So with these examples in mind, I am asking:  how should deacons “know” the topics listed above (and others that may be proposed)?      What do you expect deacons to do with their acquired knowledge and skills, and how does this shape how they should know the material?  Is “book learning”  (however defined) sufficient?  How should experiential knowledge be organized?

To start the discussion, let me sketch my own approach.  I believe that the education of deacons should be organized functionally.  It should start with what we (the Church) want deacons to be and to do, and work backwards to determine both the content and organization of their formation.  For instance, deacons should have strong faith lives that are grounded in scripture—whence the obligation to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  They are also expected to preach on a regular basis, and their homilies should, ideally, help their congregations to better understand the scripture and apply it in their own lives.  This suggests that they should engage with scripture by praying with it—the Liturgy of the Hours and Lectio Divina immediately come to mind—and proclaiming it.  As I was learning to be a lector, I was told that I could not effectively proclaim it until I understood it:  what do the words mean?  Where in the Bible does this passage come from?  What are the circumstances the author was confronted with, and how was he responding to them?  This suggests some formal scripture study, but organized in a very different way.   And finally,  deacons should learn scripture by preaching on it:  what does it mean in their own lives and in the lives of others?  This would lead to both faith sharing (which is itself an acquired skill) and also to endless possibilities for tying scripture to Catholic teaching in a wide variety of areas.

Applying this reasoning to the other things a deacon should know leads to a formation program  that is not organized around a “curriculum” with discrete academic topics (Introduction to the Old and New Testament, Catholic Ethics, Homiletics, etc.) but instead attempts to weave all of these topics together into an organic whole.   For those familiar with it, the problems and issues involved bear some resemblance to those of the calculus reform movement of the past 25 years.  And, though I know much less about it, I think there are some connections with Montessori education.    Possible?  Of course.  Difficult?  Yes.  Such a program would require an interdisciplinary approach and the rejection (or at least substantive revision) of much received wisdom on education.    But I think deacons educated in this way would be much bettered prepared for their ministries.

What do you think?

"If you don’t believe in God like me though you can have as many robit ..."

What would “pro-life” mean in a ..."
"If technology can solve these problems then we will be free, although if humans start ..."

What would “pro-life” mean in a ..."
"Was just looking back over my copy of Brave New World. Here's Controller Mustapha Mond ..."

What would “pro-life” mean in a ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://www.facebook.com/ron.chandonia Ron Chandonia

    I teach in diaconate formation, serve on the advisory board, and was recently asked to lead the curriculum and instruction area, so I have a strong interest in this topic. The academic topics that must be included in the curriculum are spelled out in the Basic Norms, but you are exactly right that academic formation for ministry should not look like an M.A. program. The classes have to be interrelated, and they have to be ministry-oriented. In addition, they have to take account of the diversity in background of the candidates, as well as the many different kinds of service in which they are likely to engage after ordination.

    Especially because of the range of student backgrounds, I’m hesitant to say that a Montessori approach would serve better than discrete classes with instructors willing to work in tandem and to orient their presentations toward prep for ministry. But perhaps I’m not clear enough on what you have in mind.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Maybe Montessori is a distraction—as I said, I don’t know much about it and I just have a hunch there is a connection.

      The problem I see with discrete classes is that they naturally put the focus on their individual topic, and this makes it more difficult to “orient their presentations toward prep for ministry.” But let me think about this as the other comments come in.

  • Jordan

    David, I’m upset that you were turned away. You’re brilliant, erudite, and articulate. I’m sure your homilies would be great. Frustratingly, your erudition might have resulted in your rejection.

    On a whole I’ve been greatly underwhelmed by diaconal preaching as well as sacerdotal preaching regardless of form or churchmanship. There’s this trend in many parishes to almost always avoid doctrinal homilies. Yeah, at the EF and high church joints you’ll hear theological preaching, but often it’s prurient moral theology. Rarely do I encounter a deacon or priest who preaches effectively and succinctly on the theological message of the readings without slumping either into sentimentality or polemics.

    I can’t read seminary rectors’ and pastors’ minds, but I suspect many share a prominent attitude about homiletics: don’t hit the hot buttons. Humanae vitae is out front, though I have seen a parishioner verbally attack a priest after delivering a pro-life homily. I agree with those who contend that HV and other “pelvic issues” are best left to the confessional or spiritual counseling, but the presence of moral theological controversy shouldn’t impede all theological preaching. Unfortunately, a paralyzing fear has all but scuppered catechesis from the pulpit.

    I can’t say for sure, but I suspect you were turned away simply because you “know too much”. Your inability to become a deacon is a great loss for your church, your diocese, and all who believe in a return to educated and well-delivered homilies.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you Jordan. But “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

      Let’s keep the discussion focused on formation.

  • Melody

    “I believe that the education of deacons should be organized functionally. It should start with what we (the Church) want deacons to be and to do, and work backwards to determine both the content and organization of their formation.” I agree with that.
    What I have seen, over about a 30 year period, has been dioconate formation re-inventing itself about 4 times. I guess this is understandable, since there was nothing to go by in the way of guidelines after more than a 1000 year gap. It seems to be going more in an academic direction at present. I’m not saying that’s bad, but we want to be careful about elitism, and about weeding out candidates who could do a lot of good in their parishes and communities. At the time my husband went through formation, a couple of formation re-inventions ago, he had a classmate who was an immigrant and had only a fifth-grade education. That gentleman struggled mightily with the classwork, but with the help of his classmates and the priest who supervised formation, he made it through. He is today serving his parish in a much-needed capacity among its Spanish speaking members. I’m not sure he would be accepted into a formation program nowadays.
    And maybe it’s my immagination, but I am also noticing a tendency to tighter screening of applicants, and more of a willingness to part company with the candidates who don’t quite fit the cookie-cutter.

  • Mark VA

    Dear Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

    Well, well, well.

    You’ve written one of the most unusual, intriguing, and please don’t get offended, since no offense is meant, humorous opening lines I’ve ever read:

    “Over the past year, since I was dismissed from the diaconate formation program in my diocese…”

    How often does that happen to a statistical median Joe? You obviously ain’t one. However, to be honest, I think that if I ever attempted such a quest, I too would be thrown out in short order, perhaps for reasons 180 out. Opposite whiskers gazing at the same box, eh?

    Me diocese is full of deacons, and I wish them all well, in all their undertakings. Alas, my traditionalist EF parish has no deacons, but frankly, I think it would be interesting to observe one function in such an extreme setting. On the other hand, since vocations for us do happen (thank God), I don’t see this as likely.

    May God bless all the deacons, and all those who will never be counted among them.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “You’ve written one of the most unusual, intriguing, and please don’t get offended, since no offense is meant, humorous opening lines I’ve ever read”

      Thank you, I think. No one else has called it humorous, but I see your point!

      • Mark VA

        That’s because humour and its very opposite are bawdy and weather-bitten gifts of muse-giglets many Catholic Traditionalist varlots suffer from. It’s either one or the other, often both.

        Catholic Conservatives and Liberals find little use for humour and despair (but you can prove me wrong, dear analyser of yo-yo’s). They are too whey faced to indulge their milk-livered spongy mold-cortexes in such high octane pursuits.

        Happy (as best we can tell) Shakespeare’s birthday!

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “Alas, my traditionalist EF parish has no deacons, but frankly, I think it would be interesting to observe one function in such an extreme setting.”

      Getting back to my main concern: in the setting of an EF parish, what do you think deacons should be formed to do, and how should this shape their formation?

  • Jacob W Torbeck

    “It should start with what we (the Church) want deacons to be and to do, and work backwards to determine both the content and organization of their formation.”

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, but also put your finger on a big issue: It doesn’t seem to me that the Church (viz., the average local parish) knows what it wants the permanent diaconate formed to do (yet). As the directory says, “The almost total disappearance of the permanent diaconate from the Church of the West for more than a millennium has certainly made it more difficult to understand the profound reality of this ministry. However, it cannot be said for that reason that the theology of the diaconate has no authoritative points of reference. . . [T]hey are very clear, even if they need to be developed and deepened.”

    Reflective of this fact, I have heard of priests referring to deacons as “liturgical flowerpots” or “altar parsely,” which betrays (on the priests’ part) either an ignorance of, a lack of appreciation for, or a perceived lack of opportunities for diaconal ministry (aside: the redundancy of that phrase in Greek is killing me).

    In parishes I’ve attended, the liturgical faculties of the deacon are more often fulfilled by the priest — only rarely do I hear a homily by a deacon. Based on limited observational evidence, the ministry expected of deacons may seem little different than the practice of lay pastoral associates and the religious promises made by members of third orders, except for perhaps incardination and celibacy.

    This is in one sense a big problem: Are we merely forming diocese-bound, celibate*, liturgically-abled pastoral associates? On the other hand, it is likely that the norms are meant to be vague so that deacons can serve flexibly according to their ability and the needs of the parish… but again, if there are no deacons, we often (and happily enough) fill these roles with relatively untrained laity.

    I think any formation program needs to have a really good idea of what makes diaconal formation distinct from the kind of formation lay ministers receive (often an m.div. or an m.a. in pastoral theology where I live).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      You have used the word “celibate” twice in connection with permanent deacons, once with an asterisk which looks like a (missing) footnote. To forestall a spate of tangential responses: permanent deacons can be and in the US overwhelmingly are married men, so they are not celibate. They are enjoined to not marry again if a spouse dies, but I read somewhere that dispensations are granted for this. (I would like more information on this if that is indeed the case.)

      Returning to my main question: as you see it, in your parish, what should deacons be formed to do?

      • http://www.facebook.com/ron.chandonia Ron Chandonia

        Melody says correctly that formation requirements have been revised several times and are now much more academically focused than they were in the past. But it seems to me that one of the most important functions of today’s deacons is not covered in the list of academic requirements: pastoral counseling. The National Directory says that pastoral experiences during formation should provide an opportunity for candidates to translate “intellectual knowledge into pastoral service,” but this does not happen systematically–or, in many cases, happen at all. Nor does it necessarily happen after ordination. If something has to give, I’d rather see fewer theology courses and more seminar opportunities focused on pastoral experiences.

      • Jacob W Torbeck

        Thanks for heading off the tangents at the pass. Celibacy is the norm for all /unmarried/ deacons (8% of them; 1% are remarried) – I could have been more clear.

        Rather than shooting from the hip, I went and did some research, and came across a dissertation that convinced me that how a deacon should be formed has less to do with what a deacon “does” and more what a deacon “is,” which Thomas O’Meara describes as “the presence of the church with the poor, and the voice of the poor in the church.”

        This projects, to me, a unique kind of ministry that very much requires the interdisciplinary formation in “diaconal” preaching and “diaconal” ministry that seems to be missing in the diaconal formation programs that I researched (which look like M.Divs with the language requirements removed).

        • Jacob W Torbeck

          ((not O’Meara, sorry – hit enter too soon!))

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

    This is a fascinating question. I don’t know much about diaconate formation, but it reminds me a bit of difficulties with building a good Ethics course. When I first started teaching Ethics I realized immediately that there would be a problem with just lecturing on something like Aristotelian virtue ethics (one of the several approaches I look at), which (going back to Aristotle himself) rejects the idea that you can learn ethics without practice of it. But, for a number of reasons, it’s somewhat difficult to get anything adequate to this in an Ethics course. So I put in a service learning component — the students have to volunteer somewhere and relate it to the ideas in the course in a presentation and journal. It’s not a massive change, and deliberately designed to be very flexible, but it vastly improves the course. Ethics suffers if one assumes modular education: ethics is an area in which everything has to come together, even if (as we usually are in an Ethics course) we’re only considering kinds of ethical reasoning.

    It strikes me that you’re pointing to a similar problem here, although one that would be more extensive. And it fits with my experience of deacons — due to a number of complications in terms of location, population served, etc., deacons have been a pretty crucial part of the parish. Most of them seem to be quite practical in focus. It also seems to fit with the basic justification of the diaconate from Acts. So, in a sense, formation would ideally be one long ‘service learning’ experience, in which one began with a well-rounded practical context, including, as you say, preaching, but also organizing service projects, participating in training lay ministers, etc., and shaped the courses (or units, or special projects) around this, as supplemental to it, and as ways to enrich the practical experience.

  • Ronald King

    David, My belief is that deacons must first possess the attribute of empathy and there are empathy tests which can measure this. I know you possess that just from what you have written. In my opinion, the presence of and lack of empathy will influence how we interpret scripture and the quality of our interpersonal relationships.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      an interesting point, but this would be more of a gateway test and not part of the formation program per se. Unless, of course, it is possible to detect an incipient sense of empathy and then develop it through a formation program. Can a sense of empathy be instilled?

      All things considered, I think I would look for candidates who demonstrate in some way a sense of empathy, and then work on incorporating it integrally into their judgment and decision making processes.

      • Ronald King

        David, There are varying degrees of empathy and there is an empathy quotient test that can be administered. Studies have shown that there are gender differences with females tending to be more empathetic than males. Empathy can be taught otherwise I would have been kicked to the curb long ago. I attempted to teach empathy and empathetic responses in my former practice with individuals, couples and families. I think it would be much easier to test for empathy as you suggest before the formation process. It appears to me that there was a lack of empathy in those who denied your entrance into the program without a clear explanation. I consider that a major problem.

  • Mark VA

    Mr. David Cruz-Uribe, you’ve asked:

    “Getting back to my main concern: in the setting of an EF parish, what do you think deacons should be formed to do, and how should this shape their formation?”

    Thank you for asking. The only opinions I can offer will be based on my less than comprehensive knowledge of Traditional Catholicism, full communion, FSSP parish, and a conservative leaning OF setting.

    My small EF parish (around 170 families) has produced five vocations, with more in the pipeline. We are staffed by two full time priests. We literally overflow with children, who need to be catechized and educated – we’re talking classroom space. If there is a problem here, it is that all the vocations so far are male. The need is felt for the presence of sisters in habits among us (Dominicans?), to act as a catalyst for the potential female vocations we are certain we have. A deacon among us would undoubtedly be put to good work, but with all that we already have, would it be fair to claim that one more resource, when others go without even a single full time priest?

    From this point of view, the effort to increase the number of deacons seems to be driven by the rather weak vocations in some dioceses. From what I see anecdotally, the weaker the vocations, the greater the need for deacons, and vice versa. As to why the vocations are pitiful in some dioceses but not in many others, is a Pandora’s box that I will not open for now.

    Another thing that I would consider, is the potential fait accompli of having such a large number of married men serving in an official ecclesiastical capacity. It is not unreasonable to suspect that some may decide to agitate that a future pope ordain them as priests, and by doing this, abolish celibacy.

    Thus my answer would be – we need more vocations, both for priests and the religious. Vocations don’t seem to be a problem in many dioceses in our country. Why then do other dioceses lag behind in this respect? In this consideration, deacons play a supporting role.

    • Kurt

      Isn’t the diaconate a vocation as well?

      • Mark VA

        A vocation to the priesthood does not equal a vocation for the diaconate. While the word is the same, the calling for the former is of a different nature than for the latter. The priests are central, deacons support (but I respect both of these functions).

        As perhaps you can tell, I’m not the “we are the Church” Catholic – I believe that distinctions and hierarchies are organic and necessary.

        At any rate, I believe the bottom line is that we need more vocations for the priests, and the habit wearing sisters and nuns.

        • trellis smith

          The linguistic arabesques showing the utter contempt for the Sensus Fidelium by the hierarchy should calm any fears that ‘we are the Church”

          The multiplicity of organic church polities belie the sole necessity of hierarchy. And while it is understandable that the Catholic laity may well want to distance itself from the malfeasance of the hierarchy in its handling of the sexual abuse crisis the laity itself may become as implicated and tainted as much as it pays the price in closed churches and schools, should it not demand a greater share of governance and oversight. Now is not the time to be ‘good Germans”, as the most pressing responsibility of the Church is to heed Luke – “Physician -heal thyself!

          If the requirement for the religious ostentation of a habit outside ceremonial occasions is based on the present bad fashion sense that usually physically identifies the religious.you will find little argument
          If by habit you are referring to more contemplatives ( why only women – pray tell) then who could argue with that.
          If by lack of habit you think we have no need of the sisters outside the cloisters who go out and serve the unmet needs of the world and usually are not habit attired then of course we are beyond argument because you would make no sense.

    • Jordan

      re: Kurt [April 25, 2013 12:08 pm]: Certainly, the diaconate is a vocation. A Roman Catholic deacon, married or celibate, may serve in either the extraordinary or ordinary form. There is no such thing as an “EF deacon” and an “OF deacon”.

      A divide in opinion exists in the EF movement over the permissibility of permanent deacons. At my church, a permanent deacon participates in as many EF Solemn Masses as possible. I have never heard any parishioner criticize our married deacon’s service in the liturgy and for the parish in general. Then again, my parish is also served by an ex-Anglican married priest who is a frequent EF celebrant. Married clergy are non-controversial in my parish.

      However, other EF congregations do not accept the permanent diaconate. I suspect this stems from two phenomena besides the general traditionalist resistance to the possibility of the ordination of married men to the priesthood. The SSPX’s vociferous disapproval of the restoration of the permanent diaconate has likely influenced some traditionalists loyal to Rome. Also, I suspect that some traditionalists disapprove of the permanent diaconate as this vocation did not exist at the eve of the Council. However, since Rome has stated that any deacon may participate in any Roman liturgy, traditionalists who deny permanent deacons a role in the EF have no juridcial basis for their prejudicial policies.

  • Mark VA


    There are over a billion Catholics on this planet – to what “Sensus Fidelium” are you referring? You wrote that the Catholic hierarchy has “utter contempt” for this (billion strong?) “Sensus Fidelium”. Perhaps you care to be more refined, and clarify the concepts you’re dealing with?

    “The multiplicity of organic church polities belie the sole necessity of hierarchy”

    Here you seem to be advocating disbanding the Vatican and the bishops – we can do without them, the “hierarchy” – no? “Belie” is a strong word that leaves little room for nuance.

    I’ll try not to address too much the oily remark about the laity being the “good Germans” vis-à-vis the “hierarchy”. The unfortunate parallel here is as clumsy as it is insulting.

    Also, by “habit” I’m referring to a uniform. Habits denote life long allegiance to an Order and its spiritual discipline. Street clothes denote the current fashions and politics of the street.

    Lastly, I would like to make sure we understand the distinction between sisters and nuns.

    • trellis smith

      Pray tell Mark when does the average Catholic have a vote in the governance of the Church except with his/her feet? Sensus Fidelium may be too vague a concept for you, I tend to define it (negatively) as a “chaffing on the bit” but you seem to prefer, as Pope Benedict was able, to refine the concept out of existence. If you don’t think there is a crisis in the hierarchal governance of the Church my response is more than “I got a church parking lot you can buy”, That so many would remain so willfully ignorant of the systemic evil, makes the parallel I have drawn quite apt as it was meant to be insulting.

      • Mark VA


        You speak in generalities – “chafing at the bit” hardly describes anything. Both the left and the right may be “chafing”, for whatever reasons.

        One thing that is clear, is that you have made your dislike of the Catholic hierarchy plain. I don’t care to jump on that band wagon.

  • trellis smith

    I could pile it on but I was rather specific in stating that the sexual abuse crisis was what made manifest the systemic nature of the problem with the polity of the Church. And where I don’t necessarily see this as a right/left issue the difference is that the left is chafing at the bit and the right is chomping on it.